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“I am now arguing that we have to strengthen the alliance with the U.S.,” he said in an interview. “By doing so, we can get closer to China.”

Gen. Yamaguchi said relations between South Korea and China have deteriorated in recent years — not least because of China’s continuing support for the North — but that the South’s ties with Washington remain strong.

“[That’s] what allows me to sleep at night,” he said.

Despite Gen. Yamaguchi’s sentiments, some U.S. academics question Washington’s resolve in seriously confronting China because of fears that Beijing could retaliate in ways that hurt American interests.

Edward Friedman, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said there appears to be disagreement within the U.S. government over how to deal with China. One side wants to remain soft on China to encourage it to consume more U.S. goods, while the security establishment favors a hard-line approach, he said.

The security establishment “cannot help but see that [Beijing] is ever more assertive in establishing a China-centered order in Asia,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Added the University of Pennsylvania’s Mr. Waldron: “The impulse to mollify China is very strong in Washington these days, strengthened by the way we are overextended already in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the longer-term view, dating back to [Henry] Kissinger and [Richard] Nixon but still surviving, that Beijing, and not Tokyo, is somehow naturally Washington’s appropriate partner in Asia.”

Former Pentagon official Thomas Mahnken said a key question in determining the future of U.S.-China policy is whether the elements in the American administration that favored containment prevail over those that favor engagement.

“During the Bush administration and into the presidency of Obama it has been the Treasury Department and perhaps to a lesser extent the State Department that has had the dominant hand in China policy, he said. “Both of these are bureaucracies that tend to favor engagement.”